INTERVIEW – ALAN ROBERT (Horror Artist/Life of Agony bassist) “I really do my best to try new ideas and push the boundaries of the genre. There’s a lot of twisted humour built into the pages”

Interview by Carina Lawrence / Dark Art Conspiracy

Internationally renowned musician of popular rock band Life Of Agony and graphic novelist Alan Robert is the creator of several critically-acclaimed works: Wire HangersCrawl to MeKillogy, and The Beauty of Horror, a bestselling series of horror-themed adult colouring books. Alan has recently unleashed the sixth volume of his successful horror colouring books, where he pays tribute to the world’s most famous works of art. We talked to Alan about his latest book, his love of drawing and horror, music and more!

So, before we get into your latest Work of Art, The Beauty of Horror 6. How long have you been an artist? Is this something you have always had an interest in?

I started drawing at a very young age. My earliest memory of art being important to me was when I was six. The first Star Wars film hit theatres in 1977, and I remember feeling completely blown away by the creature designs and the uniquely designed space crafts. When I got home, I immediately drew all of the characters from memory as best as I could. As I grew older, I continued to do well in my art classes and eventually was accepted to a specialized high school focusing on design. I loved comic books and would collect series like The Punisher, Spider-Man, and others. I created my own black & white comics and worked out a deal to sell photocopies of them at my local comics shop. It was fun and kept me out of trouble. After high school, I received a scholarship to go to The School of Visual Arts in NYC for college. All through that time, my focus was to become a professional comic book artist. So at SVA, I chose illustration as my major.

You studied cartooning under legendary Thor comic writer/artist Walter Simonson. How did that end up happening, and how helpful was that in your journey as a graphic novelist?

Yes! Studying under Walt was a great experience, and I learned a lot about visual storytelling and the ins and outs of the comics business in general. Besides being a professor at SVA, Walt was also working on various titles for Marvel at the time, so he had relevant, real-world knowledge about the industry that he shared with us.  He would often bring in his comics friends to be guest speakers for the class, as well. They helped prepare the students to become more well-rounded storytellers. Often, for class assignments and homework, Walt would have us interpret actual comic scripts that he was working from and have us turn those pages into comics panels and pages. He would critique our work in helpful ways and would show us how he chose to illustrate the same pages from the scripts. He explained why he made certain creative decisions to push the story forward. A lot of those lessons still resonate with me, and I’ve carried them over into my own work. Eventually, long after I graduated college, I reconnected with Walt at NY Comic Con, and he wrote the introduction to my graphic novel Crawl To Me. That was a great honour. A full-circle experience.

Do you have any other comic/graphic novel artists you are particularly a fan of and help inspire your art?

Absolutely. Mike Zeck (The Punisher) and Todd MacFarlane (Spawn) were two of my favourites growing up. I also enjoyed independent comics like Eastman & Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles of the 1990s when it first came out. It was black & white, violent and gritty. There really wasn’t anything else like it at the time. It was unique and groundbreaking. 

You released your first The Beauty Of Horror book in 2016, I believe. How did you come up with this concept to release these gory but fun colouring books series, and what made you want to venture into this?

I had been writing & illustrating several original horror comic series and graphic novels for IDW Publishing leading up to that point. My relationship with IDW started in 2009 with Wire Hangers, then 2011’s Crawl to Me, and I followed that up with 2013’s Killogy. The Beauty of Horror was created almost as a spoof on the adult colouring craze. Colouring books in 2015 were practically everywhere, but the ones that were available were primarily nature-based or mandala books. They were wildly popular, so I thought it’d be fun to spin the genre on its head and make something really cool for horror fans. I set out to create the book I’d want to colour as a horror fan myself.

How happy have you been with the reaction and success of the books?

To my surprise, The Beauty of Horror exploded as soon as it came out! I really had no idea that it would connect with so many colourists and horror fans out there around the world. It caught on right away, and within the first few months, IDW had to reprint even more books just to keep them in stock.  Its success allowed me to dive deeper into Ghouliana’s world and explore many different themes in the volumes that followed.

As the series grew bigger and bigger with each book, IDW encouraged me to expand into different directions with the brand, and I pursued the development of a colourable tarot card set and a guided journal. The Beauty of Horror series has now sold over 500,000 units, and Ghouliana even has her own NECA action figure! It was really unexpected, honestly. I thought The Beauty of Horror would just be a one-and-done situation. I had no idea that it would become my main focus for the last 7 years. It’s been an incredible thing, and with every book in the series, I really do my best to try new ideas and push the boundaries of the genre. There’s a lot of twisted humour built into the pages, and the fans really appreciate that aspect. It separates my series from other horror colouring books that have popped up recently. Fans of the series really bring the linework to life, too… it’s so amazing to see! It’s like a never-ending art project between me and the colourists.

The new volume six pays homage to world-renowned art pieces. What made you decide to base the book on such prevalent artwork?

I took art history classes back when I attended The School of Visual Arts many years ago, but unfortunately, I slept through most of the slideshows back then (laughs). I had already started playing shows up and down the East Coast with my band, Life of Agony, and I was pulling some very late nights while going to school during the day. As soon as my art history teacher shut the lights in the auditorium to show us the slides of paintings, I would immediately conk out. I definitely was not the best student. So, I guess creating this book was my little way of paying tribute to the greats… in my own twisted way. I actually learned more about art history by putting my own spin on the master’s works than I ever did from cramming for an art history exam. It was a very cool experience, and the fans seem to really enjoy it too. The reviews have been incredible. 

What are some of your favourite art pieces you have created so far, and why?

My favourite pieces are probably the ones with the most humour in them, like the American Gothic parody I drew, where I replaced the farmer and the woman with alien characters from the cult classic film. They Live. The church in the background is riddled with signs and propaganda, reading “obey” and “consume”, etc., just like the movie. I have a twisted sense of humour so that sick sensibility is intertwined in the designs. I also really enjoyed illustrating the homage to Washington Crossing the Delaware, where George and his soldiers were replaced by horror movie icons like Freddy, Jason, Leatherface, Pinhead, and more. Of course, Ghouliana had to get in on the fun, too… so she’s in there helping row the boat.

For those that aren’t particularly arty or creative, how important is it to inspire and tap into your creative side? Colouring is almost therapeutic, and I think, especially since the covid pandemic, adults particularly have been looking for more ways to calm their minds and improve mental health – did this play a factor in the idea of adult colouring books to promote this idea?

I do think that colouring is a great way to channel creativity and a healthy activity to de-stress. A lot of colourists I know enjoy unplugging from their devices for a few hours to let their creative juices flow. We did see an increase in sales during the pandemic, so I do think folks were definitely looking to keep themselves busy during isolation. For me, drawing these designs for many hours a day during the lockdown was a great way to keep my mind on positive things while the world seemed like it was falling apart. Especially since my band was forced to cancel tours due to travel restrictions during COVID, I was home for a good year and a half, drawing almost every day.

What are some of your favourite horror films/shows or books, and what do you like about horror so much that you do these books?

Psychological horror is probably my favourite. So a film like The Shining is at the top of my list. But I also grew up on all the eighties horror classics, so series like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Evil Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, and Hellraiser are all ingrained in my head. I’m a big zombie fan too, so I enjoyed the first few seasons of The Walking Dead on AMC and of course, all of the dead films… Dawn of The Dead, Night of The Living Dead, etc. I blame my obsession with horror on seeing Amityville Horror at a very young age. It scared the shit outta me! I’ve loved horror ever since.

Have you already started working on any other graphic novels or colouring books or got any ideas lurking for your next book?

Recently, I completed work on The Beauty of Horror Tarot coloring book (out in August), and The Best of The Beauty of Horror coloring book (to be released in October). I also wrote and illustrated a story and cover art for the upcoming Pantera graphic novel (Z2 Comics). I also just finished a really fun project for Z2 that has not been announced yet. Some other things are in the works, but unfortunately, I cannot reveal the details just yet.

Moving on to the music side of things now. How do you find time for your art around being in Life Of Agony?

I’ve actually created a lot of art for Life of Agony over the years, including the band’s logo, countless merchandise designs, tour posters, and album packaging. I’ve also done artwork for Black Sabbath, Pantera, Shinedown, Type O Negative, and more over the years. But, outside of the band art, I used to draw my comics while out on tour. Usually backstage and on the tour bus. There was a lot of downtime on the road to knock pages out, and it helped pass the hours in between soundcheck and showtime. These days, I draw The Beauty of Horror books exclusively at home. I try to separate the two mindsets as much as possible. When I’m on tour now, I try to just focus on the music and the performances, and when I’m home and off the road, I can dive into the art without distractions. The Beauty of Horror books are so detailed and intricate that it helps to just lock myself away and lose myself in that world.

This year you are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the ‘River Runs Red’ Record with a world tour. How does it feel looking back at that album, and what did it do for you as a band?

When “River Runs Red” came out in 1993, it allowed us to tour the world and to perform to massive crowds at outdoor European festivals. We built a die-hard fan base that has stuck with us for 30 years now. It’s been amazing to celebrate that accomplishment night after night on this anniversary tour. We have been having an absolute blast all year, and we’ve brought along some of our old friends to share the stage with us like Sick Of It All, Madball, and Prong. Every night has been a whirlwind of energy and emotion. We perform the entire River Runs Red album from start to finish, as well as a handful of fan favorites from the back catalog. In 2019, right before the pandemic, we released a new album titled ‘The Sound of Scars” but due to COVID, we really didn’t get a chance to tour on that record. We’ve definitely been making up for that this past year! We’ve been out touring since January and have dates booked through December. 

While we were off the road last year, we finished up our film, directed by Leigh Brooks. I encourage anyone who hasn’t seen it yet to stream the documentary (also called “The Sound of Scars”): It is an emotional, in-depth look at our lives and what we all went through growing up together. It shows how we turned some real tragedy into something positive. I highly recommend it.

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